WASHINGTON — Big changes could be coming to the way Navy leaders plan and schedule maintenance overhauls for their ships, plans that could mean vessels will spend less time in dry dock.

A key element lies in preventative maintenance, and sailors already are testing those waters, said Rear Adm. William Klemm, deputy commander for logistics, maintenance and industrial operations for the Naval Sea Systems Command.

One such program is called distance support, a program that involves upgraded communications equipment on all but a handful of Navy vessels that lets deployed sailors communicate with repair experts via the Internet to solve problems.

Sailors are able to take photographs of mechanical problems, for example, and transmit them to those in-the-know who can then transmit step-by-step instructions on how to make repairs, Klemm said Thursday during a roundtable discussion with defense reporters.

Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, now serving in the Persian Gulf, have had their routine six-month deployment extended about six weeks so far — and they are using the distance support program to make minor repairs, said Navy Capt. Brian Cullin, director of the office of congressional and public affairs at NAVSEA.

Leaders are analyzing whether preventative maintenance might mean aircraft carriers, for example, can go in for major overhauls once every 12 years instead of once every six — meaning the vessel will be sea-ready over more of its lifetime, Klemm said.

The war on terrorism and the looming potential conflict with Iraq forced Navy leaders to take a hard look at how the Navy schedules vessel maintenance and ways to improve methods to remain combat-ready, said Vice Adm. Phillip Balisle, NAVSEA’s commander.

The downsizing of the force in the 1990s also forced the closure of several shipyards, both in the states and overseas, Klemm said. And while the size of the fleet also has diminished, the closures were disproportionate and caused a backlog of overhaul projects.

In the next two years, one-third of the Navy’s fleet of attack nuclear submarines is scheduled to be dry-docked for overhaul maintenance and repairs, he said. While he’s not concerned about the fleet’s ability to remain combat-ready and capable of carrying out whatever missions required, it’s far from ideal to have that many vessels out of commission at one time.

And the Navy also has a responsibility to work with the civilian workforce of ship builders and maintenance workers to retain and replace the highly skilled employees, Klemm said. The Navy no longer pulls from within to fill those jobs, turning instead to the civilian world.

The Navy has become one of the sole customers of the industry, and if the service neglects it, the workforce won’t be around to attend to the Navy’s needs, he said.

Right now, the average age of the workforce is 46 years old, with 33 percent of the force 50 years or older.

In five years, both the Navy and the ship building and maintenance industry faces a massive reduction in force as people retire, he said. It takes an average of eight years to “grow” an employee specialized in upkeep of the nuclear fleet, he said.

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